What I love about the truly great writers, like W.B. Yeats, is the way they can write about what they are not going to do while doing it. These great writers, for instance, will write pages about writer’s block. I see Yeats doing that here.

I focus on this poem, (one that, if I remember correctly, he was revising on his death bed) because I think it brings the idea of Modernism as a time of experimentation together with showing how Yeats is modern besides calling himself the “last Romantic.” Yeats doesn’t seem to be a modernist because of his style which employs, mostly, conventional stanzas and consistent rhymes (usually); rather, as M.L. Rosenthal points out in his introduction to Yeats’s selected poems, “Yeats’s originality and daring lie in the force of what is wrought from these conventional formal qualities, and in the paradoxical insights the poems unfold” (xxii).

In this poem, Yeats starts off the poem by saying he is not going to do all the things he is about to do. He start off by saying how he has nothing to write about. He complains that now as an old man all the old themes he wrote about have lost their luster. Yeats says he is going to move away from using symbolism and mythology (like he uses in poems such as “Easter 1916” or “September 1913” which are very politically charged poems, or something like “Leda and the Swan” or “The Second Coming” which uses a great deal of imagery, symbolism, and Yeats’s own mythology), and instead write about his heart, “I must be satisfied with my heart” (line 4).

Then in stanza two, Yeats goes right back to using all those old themes, after he just said he couldn’t use them anymore. He goes on to “enumerate old themes” that he has used throughout his life, from Orisin (which is also a reference to Yeats’s interest in Plotinus’s philosophy) to Yeats’s plays and poem about Cathleen Ni Hulihan and Cuchulian. All these themes he has written about, “Players and painted stage took all [his] love,” but they are no longer fit themes for an old man because, “…when all is said/ It was the dream itself enchanted [him].”

The poem builds to the emotional, climatic ending. Now that Yeats claims he can no longer write about these mythological, archetypal themes, he is going to go back to the raw materials of his heart–Now that he is old, he is going to write about his heart and all those raw, ugly emotions that are buried deep inside the self: “Now that my ladder’s gone/ I must lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

Now that he is old and those old themes are gone, he is going to write about his heart and the raw emotions within it. Yeats, after all, believed that great poetry can only come from great pain. I believe it is these themes and images (foul rag and bone shop of the heart) that makes Yeats a modernist. It is in what he is saying that one can see his modernist experimentation. Also, looking at some of the other canonical modernist writers, like Pound and Eliot, in Yeats there is the same opacity to his verse. These writers all have very lyrical, musical, nice sounding words put together, but one needs a glossary of terms and a reading list to be able to fully understand what the words are saying. As Rosenthal states, “Yeats sometimes made the assumption, flattering both to himself and to his reader, that because he had something intensely felt to say it must somehow be understood” (xx).

Nonetheless, as Rosenthal’s statement illustrates, it is in this intense need to share something with his audience that Yeats is able to write such beautiful words, and I think that is why he is more popular than Pound and Eliot.